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For association events staff, networking is essential to future attendance. Keeping returnees mingling and newbies involved takes effort.
You want to provide excellent opportunities for networking in order for attendees to see value and return next year. But as soon as they do (return), they look to reestablish communications with their existing networking group and are less prone to reach out to newbies. The higher percentage of returning attendants you have, the harder it is for first-time attendees to find meaningful networking. How do you balance the desire of returnees to network within their group and a newbie’s need for branching out?
Organic versus Organized Networking
Organic networking happens naturally and the novice events manager may think all meeting networking happens that way but some must be planned/organized. Organized networking has a bad reputation. Many think of forced ice-breaker games but today’s organized networking is much more subtle than that.
For the First-time Attendees
Your goal for first-time attendees is to get them involved. However, it’s important not to force anyone. Introverts find value from networking but pushing them to network will backfire. Get newbies interacting at their own comfort level.
Give Attendees Networking Tools
Before they even step foot on your meeting floor, provide your attendees with valuable content on how to network and get the most from an event. Write blog posts on the subject, add tips to social media, and/or host a pre-meeting webinar on networking tips and must-do’s.
Create a social media list of attendees and circulate it beforehand; that way attendees have an opportunity to follow and network with one another before the meeting. Also, encourage those who have social media profiles to update their pictures to recognizable, professional shots. This will help them locate one another at conference.
Provide Attendee Lists
Making the attendee list downloadable in real-time can help first timers in creating their “must meet” list of people they want to network with. For smaller annual meetings, you can help make introductions from their “must meet” lists. For larger groups, it helps attendees find their “must meets” beforehand (such as on social media), which makes it easier to connect outside the crowds of the annual meeting.
Make Newbies Aware of Their Value
Prepare first timers to think about what they are bringing to the table. It might be an offer to review someone’s work or a compliment on a session. A newbie who can offer a favor or a valued service to someone will be one people remember.
Offer Chances to Connect Virtually
While it’s difficult to sit down with an established group in the middle of a conversation, it’s a lot easier to “join the group’s conversation” through social media. Offer opportunities to connect virtually during the meeting. Encourage social media usage during sessions and offer meet-ups for users. Introducing aspects of gamification, such as leader boards, is another great way to get your newbies and introverts interacting.
Returnees are your meeting’s bread and butter. You count on them to come back every year. Because they do, returnees often have their clique that they’re eager to reconnect with. While you want them to, you don’t want it to harm the open networking environment you’re trying to cultivate. But heavy-handed forced networking rarely leads to happy networkers.
Ask for Volunteers
There are some people who are natural networkers. No matter how many friends or professional connections they have, they always want to cultivate more. Put a call out to your returning attendees for networking ambassadors who would actively approach lone attendees and engage them. These goodwill stewards for your conference make a difference. Offer them (only) minimal directions, something along the lines of “look for people who look uncomfortable and make them feel more comfortable.” Leave the rest to them because you don’t want the experience to feel forced or scripted.
As the event organizer, if you stress inclusion and the value of reaching out in general, you will begin to see others mirroring this message. If you compliment your group on being inclusive, they often will become more so.
While you’re stressing inclusion, talk about what’s in networking for returnees. They can still build meaningful new relationships and the people they meet may further their careers, writing, connections, etc. They have as much to gain from additional relationship-building as first-time attendees.
Enlist Vocal Leaders
Every group of return attendees has “bandleaders.” They’ve been coming so long they think they’re part of the event staff. If cliques are a problem among return attendees, ask for their help and opinions. Inquire how (they think) networking opportunities could be improved for all meeting-goers. If they are part of the solution, they’ll be more apt to support it.
Play with Seating
Larger tables or smaller tables afford the most opportunity for networking. Larger tables mean most cliques can’t fill them entirely but it also means it’s difficult to have conversations with everyone there. Smaller tables allow for very intimate conversations but often mean friends will sit together.
In sessions, create clusters that lend themselves to discourse. Foster opportunities for team work among newbies and return attendees. In an article for the Canadian Association of Professional Speaker’s Magazine, authors David Gouthro and Jennifer B. Kahnweiler suggested making networking spaces smaller and more intimate, and allowing for more time between sessions. Rushing cuts down on networking opportunities and conversations about the sessions, where additional learning occurs.
For your association’s next annual meeting, work beyond organic networking and help facilitate connections within your group. Networking and human interaction are what drive your event’s future attendance so it’s crucial you help build connections.
What have you done to get people talking? Let me know in the comments.